Monday, October 26, 2015

Disneyland Paris For Nerds (A Guide)

Impressions de France

This summer I finally got an opportunity to head out to Disneyland Paris, and it had been a long time in coming. I started to become interested in the France park sometime in the late 1990s. Having more or less missed the boat on all of the initial publicity (or anti-publicity), it wasn't really until it became possible to view images in reasonable quality on the internet that I began to see photos of the place and realized that it was something radically different from the parks I was accustomed to. But this was also the same time that I became aware that there was a lot waiting for me out at Disneyland too, and at the time the possibility of taking the trek across the country seemed impossibly remote, never mind across the Atlantic.

In many ways I'm glad that I waited, but there was a disadvantage to having waited, as well. Having gotten myself acquainted with Walt Disney World and Disneyland to a degree that few ever do, and having written this blog for nine years before setting foot in Paris, I found my opinions on certain components of the park had ossified into assumptions, and Paris' park is the worst park to have assumptions about, because it chucks the rule book of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom out the window entirely. It took some getting used to. I found myself cool on things I expected to like and very warm on things I previously had no real opinion about.

Upon returning home I realized that perhaps my perspective and experiences could help other park fans plan similar trips. I’m going to be coming at this from the perspective of a fan of the stateside Disney theme parks who is more or less familiar with one (or both) of them, looking for specific details about the Disneyland Paris experience. I’m not going to be covering getting there, getting back, what I did, or my specific opinions about everything to be found within. I will cover common complaints about the experience that I’ve heard online to help set expectations about it.

As American Disney Parks goers, we're quite used to the "feel" of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom being a certain way. Buildings are cute and usually not too ornate. Theming is very elaborate in some places and, in others such as Space Mountain, a little utilitarian. These parks are places of historical interest and relevance. And they're old. Pretty old. They have a unique character and we like it that way.

Disneyland Paris is one of those Disneyland-style parks, but it doesn't "feel" like Disneyland or Magic Kingdom at all. It's actually closer to something like Animal Kingdom in many ways. The details, theming, and texture is much more sophisticated. Decor is carried into places where Disneyland or Magic Kingdom would not demand it. Coming at the experience from the perspective of a stateside fan, Paris is like the "extra fancy" version of Magic Kingdom, or sometimes a bit more like Disneyland executed on the scale of Magic Kingdom. European park fans who grew up with Disneyland Paris, conversely, could be forgiven for taking the trip to the states and finding our theme parks to be almost crude.

So here we go. What I should start off with is the key question most of you will have…

Should I Go?
Yes you should. If you have bothered to come all this way through the internet to find these specific words written by an author of no repute, then you already care enough about Disney that you should go. If you care at all about Walt Disney World, or Disneyland, then you should try, if at all possible, to see them all, because you owe it to yourself.

If you have only been to Walt Disney World, then I consider Disneyland in California to be a far more important destination than Disneyland Paris. Disneyland is one of those places that changes the way for think – not just about theme parks, but all public spaces. On the other hand, if you’ve been to Disneyland but not Walt Disney World you may find Disneyland Paris to be a much more equivalent, enjoyable experience than Walt Disney World.

That's sort of an odd thing to say, because in other areas, DLP is nearer to going to WDW than the other resorts are. It's got the dining district, the hotels around the lake, the park with huge open spaces. But since it has never upgraded its infrastructure, visiting DLP is nearer to what visiting WDW was like in the early 90s - paper tickets, weird breakfast buffets, and the characters aren't being forced on you around every bend. To some that makes the experience "less Disney". To me that makes it more enjoyable.

Do I Need to Speak French?
A little! You will find that nearly everybody who works for Disneyland Paris can speak multiple languages and this almost always includes anywhere from a little to a lot of English. In most cases you’ll need nothing more than to be able to say hello, goodbye, excuse me, please and thank you. I noticed that those working at counter service restaurants tended to be less English proficient than those working tickets, attractions, and table service restaurants. At the counter serve restaurants be prepared to speak slowly, do some pointing, and not make any complex requests.

Outside of Disneyland Paris you’ll need to know a bit more. In France there are very definite etiquette forms you should know for your trip there and for venturing out into Paris. You cannot go right up to somebody and start speaking; you must first say “Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur”, followed by a request to speak English. In America we tend to smile a lot to try to seem approachable and to soften social interactions; this is meaningless in Europe and will probably irritate those you speak to. Often, the French don’t like those who raise their voice or make jokes. Wit is more appreciated than jokes, and you likely don’t speak enough French for this to be helpful.

You’ll find if you stick to these guidelines you’re more likely to be warmly received by the French. Despite the fact that we think of the French as being rude, often they are rude because they are offended by the casual attitude of Americans. Be on your guard, especially if you are an extrovert personality, because your usual method of smoothing out social interactions is seen as rude here. I'm an introvert and I prefer the European method of doing things and I had no trouble at all.

Which brings us to:

Dealing With Who’s There
While I was at Disneyland Paris I was visiting with quite a lot of very large families from the Mediterranean countries and Middle East, a handful of those from the UK and very rarely any Americans.

Generally with these visitors you’re going to see them being led by the oldest male in the group. These family units tend to be large and very loosely organized. Any children with them are likely to be running to and fro. These children will climb on things, slam into you, brush against you, etc. Be aware that for most of these people, personal space is about half what it is in the United States; about one foot compared to our roughly two feet.

All bets are off in crowd situations, they will dash in front of you and around you. In these cases you’ll find yourself pushing your way through a crowd that does not observe the standard American etiquette of trying to “make way”. You will find yourself saying “pardon” a lot. If somebody blows past you and says “pardon” brusquely, they’re probably mad at you.

In queue lines expect these visitors to be right up against you at all times, often twisting about and gesturing a lot. They’re not trying to be rude, it’s just the way they behave. Still, this can take some getting accustomed to.

If you’re offended by smoking, understand that smoking will occur everywhere you are, and constantly. It will be happening in the walkways and queues, and often people will walk and smoke at the same time, which is something almost nobody in the States does anymore. I never saw anybody try to take a lit cigarette into an attraction, but Europeans often aren’t too circumspect about disposing of the cigarettes, either, and I didn’t see many ash trays. They often just throw it aside and step on it.

That said although there certainly were often a few in view I did not find the walkways to be strewn with cigarette butts the way you sometimes see in stateside smoking areas. I’m personally not offended by smoking but if you are then this may be a significant consideration for you.

I Heard It Was Dirty
There’s two big things everybody says about Disneyland Paris, and we’re going to deal with them in order now. The first is the extremely common claim that the park is in very poor maintenance condition. I heard this from everybody. I heard it from locals, visitors, annual pass holders, and even cast members who began apologizing for this before I even left. I half expected to have to fend off cast members leaping out of the bushes as I approached the park begging me not to enter.

In short: I saw some issues, but overall this claim is overblown.

All theme parks have maintenance issues. It's the danger of being a place where the public is invited to come. Some issues take a long time to resolve, others wrap up rather quickly. Disneyland Paris has a poorer reputation than most parks in this area, and I see three basic groups of issues that contribute to this perception - all unique to Disneyland Paris.

The first has to do with the fact that the place opened in the middle of a bad European economy, and as soon as it began to stabilize in terms of profit, Disney rushed a cheap, poorly done theme park in – Walt Disney Studios – and it was, frankly, a bomb. They’ve spent the past thirteen years trying to upgrade WDS, and in that time Disneyland Park has clearly not been getting the attention it deserves.

Stateside we went through a similar issue out in Disneyland where DCA opened and simply was not pulling its weight. Disneyland then spent nearly a decade monkeying with DCA trying to turn it into a draw, while Disneyland got very little attention. Paris was in a similar situation, yet through all of it Disneyland remained profitable where Paris really was just threading water. The condition of the park is an all too obvious reflection of this reality.

I did see some buildings that clearly had not been repainted lately, and some rides did have wonky animatronics. From a strict maintenance perspective, I’d say that Disneyland Paris is currently in an equivalent position that Walt Disney World was in in the late 90s and early 2000s. Remember when 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was sitting there empty with cargo nets flung over the rocks? Remember when Crystal Palace was closed for two years because all of the exterior wood was rotting? Nobody talks about these anymore because the turn around has been remarkable, but they happened.

To their credit, Disneyland Paris is currently engaging in a huge rolling refurbishment of the whole park. I saw resurfacing work proceeding every day all day. Repainting was happening constantly, especially at the front of the park. The whole of the Lucky Nugget in Frontierland was being re-clad in new siding, and that was probably the building I saw that needed work the most.

The second grade of issue is due to the climate. I saw a lot of things made out of stucco at Disneyland Paris, and obviously that will shrink and expand as the seasons change. I saw a lot of hairline cracks as well as hairline cracks that were being patched and repainted. They have to use different kinds of paint and different shades of paint due to the weather. At Disneyland and Walt Disney World we don’t have this issue due to the temperate and tropical climate, but it’s clear that the weather does take its toll in France.

Another item of note is the fact that Europe doesn’t use air conditioning to the extent that the stateside parks do. Europeans tend to view air conditioning as wasteful, where we simply expect it in the States (of course it's also hotter in the US than it is in most of Europe). That's just my guess, but I'd wager that's the case given how offended I've seen some Europeans get over the typical "open door, air conditioning on full blast" setup we have at Walt Disney World. Air conditioning helps keep air circulating and collects dust and debris in air filters. The upshot is that there’s a lot of dust and cobwebs that have settled in many parts of the park. It’s A Small World was especially dusty, but many queue areas had dust everywhere overhead as well.

Obviously this needs nothing more complex than a Swiffer on a pole to resolve, and I saw dusting underway, especially in the hotels. For all I know this level of dust is seen as normal and acceptable in Europe, but in the States we get squeamish about it. Take that for what you will. It didn't bother me.

The final issue is entirely on their guests. I’ve been going to Walt Disney World forever and I’ve worked there in the past, so I thought I was pretty well informed about guest behavior, but what I saw in Disneyland Paris was another thing entirely. Practically every surface below knee height was covered with scuffs and hand rails and other objects had been totally stripped of paint. I saw more people sitting up on the handrails, or any other available surface, than I’ve ever seen at a Disney park. Europe’s motto appears to be “place your butt on any attractive surface”.

This meant that handrails in particular were stripped absolutely clean. This sort of maintenance issue is tough to stay on top of because any work that’s done can be undone in hours by guests behaving this way. I also saw some cracked window panes that rather looked as though somebody had tried to put their fist through them. I’ve never seen this in Walt Disney World.

So this is clearly a combination of factors, ranging from the simple to fix (Swiffer on a pole) to complex (glass punching). I’d also be lying if I said that any of these impacted my enjoyment of the vacation. Everything in Disneyland Paris is conceived and executed on a remarkable scale and the park is very visually complex, much moreso than Disneyland or Magic Kingdom. I’m inclined to give the park the benefit of the doubt and be happy I saw it in what I considered to be good shape. Honestly, unless you are an Annual Passholder at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, I doubt you will see even as much as I did. If you’re still concerned, hold off to visit until 2017, when the parkwide refresh should be complete.

I Heard the Food Was Bad

Obviously this one is very open to interpretation and expectations are changeable. I considered the counter service food to be not as good as it is at Disneyland but better than at Magic Kingdom. That said, there are many pitfalls to consider, and I’ll get into them one at a time.

In considering where to eat, I read many reviews of the restaurants online. Horror stories abounded about mediocre quality food, restaurants closing early, and more. After reading Tom Bricker’s reviews, I set myself a rule: no eating at a place that puts a burger on the sign outside. Since the restaurants tend to close early, narrowing to just two open in the last two hours, I decided I would eat early, and often, to avoid being hungry when the park was closing.

The restaurants in the hotels and Disney Village are often open until midnight or 1 am, thanks to the region's preference for a late dinner. These are almost always better options than rushing around attempting to fight crowds in the last two hours trying to get food.

I called a week before I left and got a dinner reservation for each night I would be there, intending to eat lunch at counter service restaurants when the widest variety of them would be open. I received meal vouchers for a continental breakfast at Sequoia Lodge for each morning I was at the hotel, which took care of breakfast. Honestly, given the mild price difference and hassle involved in eating at the DLP counter serve restaurants, I’d be willing to eat table service for every meal on a future trip.

Depending on the day of the week you’re visiting, you’ll find that different restaurants will be open. With relatively little effort you’ll find that this schedule is announced in advance and can be found online. It’s a good idea to decide in advance where you will eat counter service and stick to your plan. I ate counter service every day for lunch and table service every day for dinner and did not have any food I would consider bad. Not everything was great but most of it was quite good.

At the counter service restaurants, service is slow enough that they can in no way be called "quick service". Multiple times I had to wait twenty minutes before I could approach the cash register and place my order when I was the second person in a line of two. Certain tourists who book at Davy Crockett Campground receive meal vouchers that are only good for specific things, and this invariably means a great deal of shouting, managers coming over, wild gesturing, etc. It's all very Gallic. If you see any kind of delay consider getting in another line immediately.

Disneyland Paris’ food places have their food organized according to “Menu”. The “tourist menu” is also something you may encounter out in Paris. It doesn’t actually save you any money, it simply groups items into two or three course meals including drink in a way that’s easy to communicate in limited French. Some of the sit down restaurants have three or four menus at various price points. If you want anything off the a ‘la carte menu, you must specifically say “a ‘la carte” or the counter service cast members may get confused.

At counter service, with each item ordered off the menu you will receive a small cellophane packet containing a fork, knife, napkin, and usually a packet of ketchup and a packet of mayonnaise. The only restaurant I saw that also included mustard was Casey’s Corner. If you need more ketchup you’ll need to approach the counter and ask.

A note on the ketchup because, especially for Americans, this is one of those things for many people. The ketchup is not Heinz 57 – in fact, I didn’t see Heinz 57 available anywhere I went in Europe, although I’m sure it is. The ketchup is generally not quite as smooth and a bit sweeter, more like Hunt’s. I liked it quite a lot, but it definitely wasn’t our standby American ketchup. The French definitely believe that a condiment is just that – a small accompaniment – and nobody is going to mistake you for a Canadian with your six tubes of ketchup. I suggest trying to get along without it. Despite the above, I’d also be lying if I didn’t point out that I jumped up and down and squealed like a little girl when I found a restaurant with a public pump bottle of ketchup – Toad Hall in Fantasyland, by the way.

You may find getting snacks between restaurants to be more of a challenge than at the American parks. There are fewer overall ice cream and snack bars. My general policy for snacks was to return to Main Street, where Cable Car Bake Shop and the Market Street Deli had good food and drinks with mild crowds.

When it’s open, Toad Hall Restaurant behind Peter Pan’s Flight was by far the best counter service meal I had. The fish and chips were better than many I had in England and the atmosphere was top notch. Behind that I suggest Restaurant Hakuna Matata, which had amazing special French fries, or Fuente D’Oro across from Big Thunder Mountain. I didn’t eat at Fuente, but the food comes out of the same kitchen as Hakuna Matata and I’d sooner take my chances on lousy tex-mex than a lousy hamburger or hot dog.

If counter service came out slightly ahead of Walt Disney World, I found table service to be slightly behind, although the prices were certainly more in line with what you got than they are in Florida. I ate at The Steakhouse in Disney Village, Walt’s, and Blue Lagoon and found only Blue Lagoon to be below expectations. The place, frankly, was a zoo and the wait staff was clearly outmatched by their tables. The difference between quality and price was not so extreme as it is at the Blue Bayou in Disneyland, but it still wasn’t very good.

At the table service restaurants I’ve read about Americans running into trouble when asking for tap water. In France in particular this seems to be viewed as especially insulting cheapness, which is ironic because I found at the tap water in Marne-la-Vallée to be of excellent quality and drank a lot of it in the hotel room. However I prefer mineral water if at all possible and so I always ordered that with the meals. If you are determined to have tap water, be aware that it may cause some friction. Personally, I wish I could buy bottles of Perrier everywhere I go at Walt Disney World and Disneyland as I could in Paris, but there it is.

I had also read that meals are more leisurely on the continent. I was prepared to have long dinners but found the chief difference was that you were given a nice long time after sitting down before the server approached. In the States its customary to get drinks put on the table immediately after sitting down, here expect to wait about 15 minutes before you can even order. They’re not being rude, it’s just the way they do it. And be prepared to order everything at once; they will give you plenty of time to finish your course before the next one arrives.

A few tips if, like me, you rely on caffeine to push through a long day at the park.

If you rely on sugar, ie soda, then you’ll have a tough time. The number of places which dispense fountain soda are limited, and the sizes are not quite what they are in America. Generally you’re going to see this in counter service restaurants, where lines simply to order one thing have been described in detail above and are best avoided if you can.

Elsewhere, you’ll find that soda comes in glass bottles. The glass bottles are about 66% the size of the familiar plastic bottles we get in the United States, and about twice as expensive. On the up side the soda is sweetened with genuine sugar instead of the corn extract we get in the US, so if you are corn sugar adverse, as I am, then the soda is a much nicer experience.

Coffee drinkers should not be too thrown by the choices in Paris. As can be expected, if you order European-style espresso drinks, you’ll be right at home. Most table service and some counter service places offer espresso machines and the terminology is of course identical.

Counter services places that do sell coffee generally offer one type, dispensed out of a machine. It comes with or without milk, and as you may have guessed, it has more to do with Americano than our stateside coffee. It isn’t bad – it has a nice crema on it – but it isn’t a lot of coffee for the money and I found myself missing the rich smoothness of American-style coffee.

There is a Starbucks in Disney Village, and I found that on most days they only offered American-style coffee in the morning. You have to specifically request “filter coffee” and probably to point at the vat behind the counter because nobody ever orders it. They will sell you an Americano if you want it, but the value isn’t much better than it is in the parks. On the plus side the Starbucks is open until 1 am, making it perfect for after-park pick me ups.

Those Darn Hotels
For a place with only two parks and a shopping area, Disneyland Paris has a shocking overabundance of hotels. The Disneyland Hotel sits right above the entrance to Disneyland Park and is basically their version of the Grand Floridian. It has the nicest themeing and the nicest rooms, and is centrally located to enjoy the parks. I had neither the DVC points nor the money to stay here, but perhaps one day.

Hotel New York is located near the Sequoia Lodge and Newport Bay Club on Lake Disney, and is the second nicest hotel on property. It’s designed by Michael Graves and is something like Paris’ version of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. I rather liked this hotel from an architectural standpoint, although part of my pleasure came from the absurdly dated décor. The rooms look nice – there’s more chairs, a sofa, a good bathroom, and upgraded bedding, but I’m not convinced that for the price and given the distance from the parks that it’s a better deal than the next step down in the hotels – Sequoia Lodge – or the next step up – Disneyland Hotel. It’s about a 12 minute walk to the parks.

I stayed at Sequoia Lodge and liked it fine. In terms of décor it’s like a less elaborately realized version of Wilderness Lodge combined with a few touches of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s large but not unreasonably so with spacious grounds filled with trees, peaceful music, and artificial nature sounds. The bar and restaurants on premises were uniformly pleasurable to relax in. It’s roughly equivalent to something like Port Orleans at Walt Disney World in terms of theming and price.

I was not very fond of the rooms. They’re somewhat Spartan in décor and the main overhead lighting scheme is ugly. The beds were hard and the pillows not very comfortable. The bathrooms came equipped with tiny little bathtubs that I found difficult to sit in, which was a strike for me since I prefer to bathe instead of shower.

That said the rooms were clean, functional, and pleasant enough. I've been told the rooms in the main building are a bit better than those out in "the sticks", where I was. Maid service was daily and quite through. I spent the bare minimum of time in the room each day. I found the walk to and from the park to the rooms ponderous and so only went back there when absolutely necessary. There is a shuttle to and from the hotel to the theme parks.

While I was visiting, Newport Bay Club was being rebuilt. This is another “moderate” hotel for Disneyland Paris. It’s most comparable to the Yacht Club at Walt Disney World in terms of décor. I am not a fan of the Yacht and Beach Club at all, but I like this hotel. The lobby is spacious, well appointed, and airy instead of stuffy. The downside is that it makes the rambling Yacht Club look compact. It’s a multi-story behemoth, rambling out to the furthest guest rooms for what feels like miles. It’s also the most distant of the moderate hotels, located all the way down at the far end of Lake Disney. If I were to stay here I’d take the park shuttle instead of trying to make the walk. I did not see the Hotel Santa Fe, Hotel Cheyenne, or Davy Crockett Campgrounds.

If I were heading back given my experiences and could not afford the Disneyland Hotel, I’d flip a coin on Sequoia Lodge or Newport Bay Club. I’d also consider using more DVC points to split the stay between Disneyland Hotel and one or the other. And I’d use the park shuttle instead of walking. Disney Village is fine when it’s early in the morning and uncrowded, but I find the architecture hideous and when it and the train station at the end of it are busy, it’s like swimming upstream. Disneyland Paris is a huge park - bigger than you think - and steps saved are steps saved.

That Other Park
Oh, and then there’s the Disney Studios Paris. How much time you’ll spend in here largely depends on your priorities. It has the large thrill rides, the brand new super headliner Ratatouille dark ride, some smaller family oriented rides, and practically nothing in the way of atmosphere. The theming is my top priority and I don’t care about thrills, so I spent less than two hours in here over the course of four days. It had some nicely done areas. The Ratatouiile ride is similar to the sort of projection-based dark ride Universal excels at, and it isn’t terribly accomplished in that field, but its area is very well realized and the most compelling thing in the park. I can’t imagine anybody who’s been to Walt Disney World will find much else of interest in the rest of the park unless they’re big fans of the Rock N Roller Coaster.

Be sure to stop and enjoy the areas that are well executed. There’s a very nice entrance plaza which leads into an indoor “Hollywood Boulevard” that’ll look familiar to anybody who saw the original version of California Adventure. There’s a wonderfully accurate 30s American diner across from Lights, Motors Action and some okay Twilight Zone theming around the Tower of Terror. Cinemagique is a terrific theater show with a stronger appreciation for actual cinema than what you’ll find in many stateside theme parks.

Maybe it isn’t too fair to pick on this park – in terms of pure attraction force, it’s still way ahead of Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida despite being half as old. But this is by far the last compelling Disney theme park I’ve ever been inside, and I saw DCA when it was brand new. It’s even more absurd sitting next to one of Disney’s most compelling theme parks. If there’s something you must see in here, try to be there for the park’s opening then head back over to the “main” park for the rest of the day.

Disneyland Paris Highlights
It’s generally understood by stateside Disney fans that Disneyland and Magic Kingdom are themed to “fantasy”. That is, admittedly, an odd distinction given the fact that one of them sits 50 feet away from a theme park where the main draw is an area populated with living, talking cars. In reality, Disneyland and Magic Kingdom offer one area dedicated to fantasy: Fantasyland, and a variety of areas that draw on historical periods in whimsical ways to various degrees.

However, a certain level of historical verisimilitude underlies these parks, because they are intended in some degree to be educational. Main Street may be a romanticized version of what a turn of the century town looked like, but it many ways it’s also pretty accurate. Disneyland’s dedication speaks of “hard facts which have created America”, Magic Kingdom’s of “age relives fond memories of the past”.

Okay, so, we’ve established that, and what you have to realize about Disneyland Paris is that it totally throws out that part of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom and goes for full fantasy in every area. Its Main Street USA is the Fantasyland of all Main Street USAs. Its Frontierland is the Fantasyland of all Frontierlands. Everything from size and scale to color palettes and detail level is magnified and embellished.

To me, that’s the best that I can do in terms of setting expectations. You’ll just have to go and experience it yourself. For theming nerds, the park is paradise. Every corner has unique, crazily complex little details. Sculpting, rockwork and landscaping is uniformly excellent throughout. This is the EPCOT Center of castle parks: full of daring, unique concepts and strikingly accomplished details. Every element of the park bolsters and supports every other element, unlike at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom where Tomorrowland has always felt like dead weight. Unlike EPCOT Center it’s gone 25 years without too much of what made it special being stripped out. The park has hardly expanded but it really didn’t need to be: it opened very satisfying and complete.

It’s also a huge park. Don’t be fooled by what people say, crossing this park repeatedly is exhausting. Walking from Pirates of the Caribbean in the top-left corner to Phantom Manor in the bottom-left feels about the equivalent of walking from Thunder Mountain to the Peoplemover at Magic Kingdom. The walkways are deceptively twisty and rambling.

With that in mind I’d like to close with a short list of what I consider to be the best experiences in the park. Please note that Space Mountain and the Nautilus walkthrough were not open while I was there. These come highly recommended by everyone, so go ahead and mentally add those to the list.

Lunch at Walt’s on Main Street – once upon a time a guy named Walt Disney opened a fancy restaurant called Club 33 at Disneyland. It was a series of intimate, charming dining rooms in the nicest area of the park. Over the years the Club became so popular and famous it was expanded, and all of Walt Disney’s tasteful interior décor was replaced.

Guess what? Walt’s on Main Street is what Club 33 used to be, and it does not require a membership to get in. A series of intimate dining rooms tastefully themed to the lands of the park, it’s lush with details and offers good food for a fair price. Now that Club 33 is effectively gone, Walt’s is the last real taste of what that place was supposed to be.

Le Pays de Contes de Fées – Disneyland Paris was the only castle park besides Disneyland to get this attraction, which alone makes it essential. Disneyland fans know how great and essential Storybookland is, and the Parisian counterpart is excellent as well. There’s no live narrator, if that matters to you, and the scenes are a bit less intricate and less carefully maintained. But it has unique scene selections that would never fly at Disneyland – like Night on Bald Mountain – and, thanks to a cable tow system and oddball location, it never has a line.

Casey Jr Circus Train is present as well, behind a simple but beautiful queue which rambles through a forest. Unlike at Disneyland, where Casey is basically a tractor, here it’s a charming kiddie coaster. For historical value again it’s not so hot compared to Disneyland’s version, but again it never has a line so unlike at Disneyland you can ride it six times in a half hour. For my money that means Paris wins.

Phantom Manor – Paris’ imaginative version of the Haunted Mansion is unique, and given the fact that again it nearly never has a line, you’ll be seeing it a lot. Much ink has been spilled talking about how, “unlike the Haunted Mansion”, this one has a clear story you can follow. This is nonsense. The story of Phantom Manor is intentionally opaque. You can spend time arguing about it over drinks. This makes it fun, but you’ll never figure it out because the ride designers never did, either.

The Haunted Mansion has a clear, concise story. It is the story of you, played by yourself, deciding to enter an old house and discovering that it is indeed haunted. That’s it. Nothing else needed. Phantom Manor strips its gears tying to get an impressionistic story of a mysterious bride and evil Phantom into the same ride format. There’s really no tension because there isn’t the same threat that things could go south for you at any moment. Instead, it’s best to think of Phantom Manor as a ride past evocative, inexplicable images. It’s colorful, fun, grotesque, and has a commanding soundtrack. You’ll love it.

La Tanière du Dragon – I don’t like this business of comparing theme park castles. To me they’re each appropriate to the park that they are in, and I refuse to choose. I’m not actually crazy strictly about the look of the Paris castle, but if there’s any sort of objective criteria for “best castle”, for me it would be the castle with the “most stuff”, and here the Paris castle is the hands down winner. It has an upstairs walkthrough and two gorgeous, intricate shops. It has a castle stage but it’s off to the side, so your view of the castle is never interrupted by tomfoolery. It has a wide, gorgeous moat with meandering paths and a landscaped hill with a waterfall. As you know, waterfalls improve everything. And it has a dragon.

La Tanière du Dragon put the lie to the current theme park trend of more is more is more. Everything about the execution is dead simple and maximized for pure, uncluttered effect. The dragon figure itself could no be simpler – its head moves, eyes open and close, mouth opens, one hand moves a little, a wing moves a little, that’s all you need. This economy is no doubt carried over from the original incarnation of the dragon designed by the great Claude Coats for the defunct Tokyo Disneyland Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour.

The setting here makes all the difference. Housed inside a dripping network of caves, it’s the sort of thing you could spend all day watching. Guests stand around and gape at the thing, time after time. The dragon under the castle is one of those inevitable images, so strong, simple and clear you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it. It’s like the giant pile of treasure in Pirates of the Caribbean or the mysterious bride lurking in the dark corner of a moldering attic – it throws deep seated switches in our brains, things we can’t quite control. At their best, Disney theme parks repeatedly serve up these sorts of images, challenging us to think of our lives differently.

Adventure Isle – my favorite attraction at Disneyland Paris, Adventure Isle is something like if you combined Tom Sawyer Island, Adventureland and some of the feel of Animal Kingdom into one super-attraction. The island is accessed via bridges instead of rafts and so also functions as a pedestrian flow area.

The south side of the island is castaway themed, featuring a shipwreck, waterfalls, and the Swiss Family Treehouse. The treehouse is similar to the Walt Disney World treehouse with the flow of scenes reversed. The area around it features gorgeous waterfalls and the sound of the Swisskapolka. Don’t miss the caves in the base of the hill that the treehouse sits on; they’re dark and tight and if you go in far enough you will find yourself walking through the root system of the giant tree and listening to the Swisskapolka eerily echoing through there cavern. At one point you stand stand in the cellar and look all the way up through a hole in the ground into the branches of the tree. It's basically the coolest thing in the park.

The north side of the island faces Pirates of the Caribbean and is pirate-themed; here you’ll find Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship and Skull Rock, the suspension bridge, and caverns with lost pirate gold. Forget Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, A Pirate’s Adventure, or The Pirate’s League – this is the real deal, this is what you want. Without so much as a costume or an upcharge you will feel like you are starring in your own lost treasure adventure. I haven’t felt this way in a theme park since I was a child – the caves are scary and full of awesome surprises, the foliage lush and romantic, the beaches are all white sand the scenery immaculate. Despite the fact that it was a sometimes-chilly early summer in Europe when I was there, standing on the Pirate ship I could feel the warm tropical ocean breeze in my hair. Adventure Isle is the best designed attraction in the park, and is worth the trip alone to see.

Pirates of the Caribbean – much like at Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean is the crown jewel of this park. It isn’t actually better than the Disneyland incarnation, but it’s different. It’s probably best to think of it as the Walt Disney World Pirates of your fondest imaginings. It begins in a Spanish fort, destroyed long ago in a huge battle. The boats wind their way through a tropical jungle, past a sailor’s tavern, a shipwreck, and suddenly we’re back in time and the attack on the fort has begun. The walls are coming down around you as you see the pirate ship in the distance…

Pirates was my biggest surprise. I more or less liked everything I expected to like at Disneyland Paris. It isn’t that I expected to dislike Pirates, but it’s definitely one of those attractions that works far better in person than in photos or videos. It’s got everything that Imagineering was excelling at in the 1990s – an elaborate queue, brilliant façade, wonderful scenery and effects, full host of audio-animatronics and a really remarkable finale. I realize this could describe any of the other versions of Pirates about equally well, but this one has the full package, no excuses given or needed. It’s an incredibly exciting dimensional entertainment experience.

Disneyland Paris gets a bad rap stateside, and I don’t think it’s warranted.  My guess is that it’s just the right combination of distaste for the French, distance, and an infamously rough start that’s to blame. I don’t think anyone who loves theme parks and who goes in with open eyes and an open mind could possibly be disappointed.